IT HAS BEEN THE enduring mission of man to try to conquer nature, and though the war, as it were, has been won, battles may still be lost.
Such was the case of the 1996 Mount Everest tragedy, which is the subject of Baltasar Kormakur’s film. Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) and rival guided climb operator Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal) lead a group which includes veteran climbers, adrenaline junkies, a former mailman and a journalist to the summit of the highest mountain on Earth. Needless to say, it doesn’t quite go according to plan.
The signs, as they say, were all there. First, Hall’s colleague at Adventure Consultants gives a lengthy speech on the horrendous potential effects of climbing, including hallucinations and pulmonary edema (no prizes for guessing what happens later in the film). Then, the wife of experienced climber Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin) tells her daughter, “I think he’s scared.” Anatoli Boukreev, the film’s token gruff Russian, tells Fischer that “the last word belongs to the mountain.” Hall voices concern at the large number of people with the intention of climbing the mountain at the same time. And if of all that did not persuade you that the venture was doomed from the start, Weathers nearly falls off a makeshift bridge made out of a ladder early on in the ascent.
Naturally, the Himalayan vistas are gorgeous and the quasi-supernatural character of the mountain (“the mountain has its own weather”) is omnipresent. The main force in the story, however, is ego. It drives the refusal of the competing groups to ascend at different times and the conflict between Hall and Fischer; it’s the reason climbers insist on getting to the summit when the odds are stacked against them so heavily. You are hesitant to label those who lost their lives in ’96 as arrogant––and, of course, that does not make their untimely deaths any less tragic––but that is the most fitting description for a person who insists on continuing on to the summit when not only are they are not in a fit state to do so, but their stubbornness will put others in danger, too. It is this which to most people is the most interesting element of climbing: the psychology of the climber. What sort of person puts themselves through hell and risks life and limb to take on the world’s highest peaks? And what sort of person leaves their loved ones at home while they pursue ever more dangerous climbs?
Regrettably, Everest fails miserably in this area. That isn’t to say it doesn’t try––but it tries half-heartedly. Early on in the film the journalist Jon Krakauer (Michael Kelly) asks his fellow climbers why, exactly, they climb, but the responses are superficial, and that’s the last we hear of the matter. If you wish to take a closer look into the psyche of these high-risk climbers, look no further than Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s excellent documentary, Meru.
Everest is, unfortunately, standard disaster movie fare. Despite an excellent cast and setting, it fails to hold your interest. It was a misstep not to take more time to explore the motivations and backgrounds of its principal characters, which might have elevated a solid but unremarkable film into something very good indeed.